An Economist Breaks Down The Costs of Carbon Pipelines In Iowa

Iowans know who stands to benefit from hazardous carbon pipelines — and it’s not the people or the climate. We sat down with an economist to explain the facts.

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Food SystemClimate and Energy

by Emma Schmit

Iowans are facing a monumental threat in a David-and-Goliath showdown: it’s the people against the pipelines and their dirty energy backers. The proposed hazardous pipelines would carry carbon dioxide from ethanol and fertilizer facilities across 2,000 miles in Iowa. They would extend thousands of miles across five states from Illinois to North Dakota, bolstering a failing technology known as “carbon capture.”

Three corporations stand to profit from polluting industries’ latest scam. The projects are eligible for billions of taxpayer dollars earmarked for climate action, without actually making a dent in the climate crisis. Food & Water Watch is helping Iowans fight the projects every step of the way.

This week, Senior Iowa Organizer Emma Schmit corresponded with Dr. Silvia Secchi to discuss the proposed pipelines. Dr. Secchi is an economist and professor at the University of Iowa’s Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences. She is a published author on the environmental impacts of agricultural land use in the Corn Belt. Her research focuses on the relationship between agricultural, conservation and energy policy in the region. 

In this interview, Emma and Dr. Secchi talk about the projects’ unfair costs to Iowans and our alternatives to actually fight climate change. We’ve edited this interview for clarity and length. 

Carbon Capture Will Benefit Corporations, Not Iowans

What’s your stance on Iowa’s proposed carbon pipelines? What’s your top concern?

I wouldn’t say that I oppose the proposed carbon pipelines, but the science shows that they aren’t a good carbon mitigation strategy. The only reason they’re being considered is because of who the beneficiaries are and their political clout in both parties. They don’t make any sense otherwise — socially, economically and environmentally. 

My main concern is that the public truly understands these issues, because we are literally paying for the pipelines through federal subsidies. The pipelines would not be built without them. It is critical that we have clear, evidence-based conversations on costs and benefits. That includes who benefits and who pays for these projects; what we call the distributional effects. 

Let me give you an example: if a project costs $100 million and the benefits are $200 million, you may say it makes sense. But if the $200 million go to Jeff Bezos and people in rural Iowa pay the $100 million, would you still go ahead? And with the pipelines, the benefits are clearly not higher than the costs to start with.

Pipeline companies have often exaggerated the societal benefits they generate. Have you seen this with any of the Iowa projects?

Yes, I have. It is common for these companies to hire consultants who, on the basis of data provided by the company itself, estimate egregious and inaccurately high benefits. This has been the case for the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone, and now for the ethanol CO2 pipelines. 

I urge everybody to look at the disclaimers that are present in these reports. They essentially say that the report is a PR stunt and should not be used for any other purpose. It is particularly important that elected officials don’t take these reports’ claims at face value, because they aren’t vetted and aren’t peer reviewed.

We Don’t Need Carbon Capture To Tackle Climate Change

Proponents pitch carbon capture as critical technology to address the climate crisis. But it actually stands to increase the profits of dirty energy corporations. What are some legitimate practices we can implement instead to mitigate the climate crisis?

I am so glad you asked this question because this is the really critical one. Our agricultural system is a big contributor to climate change. One of the main reasons is that it’s very reliant on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are in artificial fertilizers and pesticides. They’re integral to confinement operations (factory farms) and the overproduction of livestock animals.

If we modified our agricultural system, which exists as it does because of federal subsidies and not because of market forces, we could help both the climate and rural communities. Those changes could include less fossil fuel-intensive inputs, such as artificial fertilizer. We could also raise fewer animals (and use their manure as fertilizer) and add more perennial plants to the landscape. 

Former Iowa State University Professor Matt Liebman talked about some of these changes in our “We All Want Clean Water” podcast. These are solid, science-backed changes, and we could implement them all through the Farm Bill. These changes make a lot more sense socially, economically and environmentally than doubling down on corn ethanol.

Iowans Are United: No Carbon Pipelines!

In Iowa, the proposed carbon pipelines are creating unlikely alliances, from farmers and environmentalists to folks from both sides of the aisle. 

In your opinion, why has carbon capture become both a unifying issue?

A lot of credit has to go to the organizers on the ground who have done an amazing job listening to people. They’ve made the concerns really apparent to the rest of us. I think that people in Iowa really understand who the beneficiaries of the pipelines are. 

These types of projects have short-lived economic benefits that largely go to specialized corporations and contractors from out of state, but the environmental risks and costs are long-term. 

They’ll fall on local communities that do not have the resources to address them and should not be asked to. People in rural Iowa can see that they will be stuck with the costs of these projects for a very long time. 

With what’s happening with the pipelines, we have a real opportunity to think about the future of the Heartland. We can think about how we spend public money to address climate change and help rural communities.

What else do Iowans need to know about these projects?

The oil and gas industry is a big proponent of carbon capture. It allows the industry to continue to pollute and receive government subsidies while appearing to “solve” the climate issue. These kinds of policies do not benefit the majority of Iowans. And Iowans are, in fact, stuck paying for them. 

The only reason these pipeline proposals are put forward is because we have been trained to think that we cannot change the way we farm and use energy. But we farm this way and use energy this way because of policies our government put in place. The policies aren’t working for most of us, and they should be changed. 

There is nothing inevitable or pre-determined about the way we farm. We can and should demand better from our government in the fight against climate change.


Help Us Fight Iowa’s Carbon Pipelines

We can stop the pipelines planned for Iowa. The first of three major projects has reached the Iowa Utilities Board, which has final power to approve or deny permits. The Board needs to hear what Iowans really think about carbon pipelines.

Tell IUB: Carbon pipelines have no place in Iowa!